The Art of Confessing
by Fr Henri-Charles Chery O.P.
(Part 3 of 3)
In this way, we are not likely to forget, as already mentioned several times, that in the sacrament of penance, the main merit comes from the purifying blood of Christ, not from the exhortation of the confessor, and this purification is obtained through our sorrow.
This truth affects the way in which you should bring your faults to the tribunal of confession: you should know that that it’s not just a matter of giving an account of your sins, but of truly being sorry for them.
However, every priest who hears confessions, is struck by the kind of indifference, or at least apparent indifference, with which many penitents state their faults. They render an account of them, they make a list: and provided it’s accurately done, then it seems to them that they have done all that the Church requires of them. All that is now needed is to receive absolution, and away they go, liberated from now on. The formality is over and done with.
Now actually, it’s nothing of the sort. Nothing is ‘formality’ when it comes to acts of religion – neither the Mass, which is not just a matter of our attendance, but requires our active participation, nor confession, which is essentially a sorrow for our sins, a renunciation of the evil we have done, in order to obtain forgiveness. It’s about love – a matter of the heart (that is to say of the will). We come to admit that we have done wrong, that we have failed in the love we owe God by refusing to do His will in one way or another (His will that we should be faithful, or just, or pure, or loving, etc.). That should come across in the way we confess our sins.
‘Confiteor…., ‘ is the formula which is recommended you say before confessing your sins: ‘I confess’, I admit, I’m sorry, it’s my fault, I am guilty, I beat my breast. Your confession should be in line with this formula. It’s not a matter of seeing that you’ve done wrong and bringing this observation to the priest’s attention, it’s about conveying real regret for having done wrong.
It would therefore be good (and this will be easy if we confess a limited number of sins) to repeat before confessing each fault, ‘I confess to….’. Provided your heart is in it, this will prevent the dry indifference of those who merely recount their faults, instead of truly repenting of them.
A QUESTION: Should one confess sins from the past that have already been forgiven in previous confessions?
1) As an exercise in humility, if it doesn’t cause any turmoil or unease to your conscience, it can be good to acknowledge your guilt one more time for an old sin already absolved. And not only as an exercise in humility;
2) but also for the grace of purification that the sacrament will bring in a special way, to the particular source of infection from which the sin originated, and which perhaps is not yet completely cleansed.
SIMILARLY, it can be good, at certain solemn times of life (before marriage, the religious life, during a retreat, etc.) to make what is called a “general confession”, bringing to it either the past year or a longer period. But on one condition: that this is not done just for convention’s sake, but from a need; not from being told, ‘It’s the thing to do’ – but rather because you feel interiorly drawn to doing it. (This point is particularly relevant to confessions made during retreats.)
However, there are those who should refrain from delving back into the past: the scrupulous. The scrupulous suffer from an illness, and their illness takes the specific form of an anxiety which makes them incapable of judging whether they’ve done something wrong or not; whether they’ve done this action well or badly. They would like ‘to be sure’ and yet the more they seek this certitude, the more it escapes them.
In the confessional they want to be sure of having said absolutely everything, or of really having true contrition, and, never being sure, they repeat things indefinitely. All this exhausting soul-searching aggravates their illness under the guise of soothing it.
There is only one way for them to be cured and that is to obey the confessor without any argument or discussion. He will order them to completely shut their eyes on all the past, recent and far off.
AN OBJECTION: One form of anxiety that is experienced, not only by the scrupulous, but also by the honest or sincere, has to do with the quality of their contrition, and it is expressed in this way: ‘What’s the use of confessing this sin? I surely can’t be repentant since I know I’ll fall into it again.’
We are now talking about firm purpose of amendment.
But let us carefully distinguish between ‘predicting that we’ll sin again’ and ‘wanting to sin again.’
* Undoubtedly, the penitent who wants to sin again, who has the intention of repeating his fault at the first opportunity, is not really a penitent. He has no contrition at all. He is abusing the sacrament and is also under the false illusion that absolution from a sin can be obtained without the repentance of the sinner.
* But this is not, thanks be to God, the usual case. Most penitents have a keen awareness of their weakness justified by past experience of relapses. They believe they know that their good intention, when put to the test one more time, will not be any more effective than it was in the past. And they conclude: ‘I do not have true contrition’.
They are wrong. Deep down, they call ‘evil’ the evil they have done. They really wish they hadn’t done it. They wish they were capable of never doing it again.
But that is contrition!
God does not require, in order to forgive us, that we be sure of never sinning again! (That kind of certitude would strongly resemble presumption).
He asks us to have the intention of doing what we can, with the promised support of his grace, to avoid sinning again. Do we have this intention? Then we don’t have to worry about being hypocritical or insincere. Our gloomy predictions do not change our intention.
All the more so since they are based on a blameworthy mistrust of the grace of the sacrament. If the sacrament of penance is a means of making progress, it is not so much achieved by the psychological effort it requires of us: it’s because it applies to our sick soul the medicine of the saving and meritorious blood of Jesus Christ.
Jesus grants us the pardon He obtained for our benefit by his Passion, but He also gives us the graces of cleansing and strength to support us in future struggles, particularly in the area of the sins we have brought to Him for absolution. It is in these graces we should put our trust, not in the doubtful capacities for resistance of our good will.
Therefore do not worry about tomorrow. For tomorrow, tomorrow’s grace will be enough, provided that you keep trusting and praying. For today you have today’s grace, the grace of contrition. Wanting to imagine tomorrow’s temptations, is to want to carry a burden for which you have no help. It’s not surprising then that it seems too heavy and overwhelms you in advance.
To say this is not, however, an invitation to heedlessness. Confession should be finished with a resolution. The carrying out of this resolution we entrust to God’s help, but we must also be willing to work at it.
The most efficient way of doing this is to make that resolution precise, dealing with one sin that we want to avoid, not on all the faults confessed, nor even, as a general rule, on several.
And better still, to try to anticipate, going by past experience, the circumstances which might lead us into a fall – those occasions, which, if we place ourselves into them, may sweep us along into sin again. Let us make a resolution to avoid these occasions.
For instance, if we know:
— that this particular company drags us into malicious gossip;
— that that kind of reading turn our thoughts towards impurity;
— that this open drawer brings to mind old, barely dormant, grudges;
— that this kind of conversation gets us all worked up1.
The resolution will be:
— to flee from this type of company;
— to forbid ourselves this kind of reading;
— to keep that drawer closed, and to avoid this particular kind of conversation.
To act like this, is to realistically accept ourselves as we truly are, capable of falling where someone else would be strong in resisting. In this way we avoid presumptuously ‘tempting God’, by laying ourselves open to temptation; it’s therefore being logical with our contrition.
Why not, from time to time, safeguard your resolution by putting it to the confessor at the end of your confession? That will certainly help you to keep to it.
When done in this way, confession will no longer be the tedious repetition of ‘standard’ sins, which it only too often becomes, and which is sheer drudgery. It will become one of the most powerful means of sanctification that the Church puts at our disposal. In going to the tribunal of confession, we will be conscious of going to Christ on the Cross, who holds, in his crucified hands, the forgiveness He has obtained for our benefit; the blood with which he wants to cleanse us.
Conscious of our poverty, all the more so if we have taken a good, clear look at our daily weaknesses, and trusting in His mercy, having begged him to make us detest our sins, we will enter through the door of the confessional with the humble disposition of the prodigal child:
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am not worthy of being called your son.’
Because of that, we will be able to go away with renewed strength, founded on the liberating assurance:
‘Go in peace, my son, your faith has saved you.’